"Muscle Confusion" is the concept of changing exercises regularly to "SHOCK" the body/muscles to send them a signal to grow and improve their strength.
Is this concept a good plan for optimal growth and strength development? What are the pros and cons of this strategy? This article will cover just that.
To make progress in any movement pattern these 3 principles are the most important to consider. They are in order of most importance.
1. Consistency - Are you working out regularly enough to make a change? Typically 2-5 days a week is needed to make a change.
2. Specificity - Exercises that we select should mimic the activities we want to improve. To get bigger legs you should squat.. Not do bicep curls!
3. Overload- We need to do MORE each workout to send a signal for the body to improve strength and build muscle. If you lift the same amount of weight day in and day out, your muscles have no reason to grow. They are already strong enough to lift what you are currently lifting..
"Muscle confusion" can be used to meet the first 2 principles.
1. Consistency - If by changing the exercises regularly it gets you excited to go into the gym and train, AWESOME!
2. Specificity - If the exercises you change still work on the same movement patterns and muscle groups that you want to improve, you are still on track to make some progress!
But muscle confusion is not optimal for overload.. It can actually impair the overload principle if done too frequently..
How do you overload/progress a movement pattern or exercise routine you have never done before?? You can't because it's new! You need to do routines or exercises somewhat regularly to overload them!
When we start training new movements, most of the improvements are neurological. This is the time where the brain is making new connections to learn how to do the movement pattern more efficiently.
Muscle hypertrophy takes at least 6-8 weeks of doing similar movement patterns to make changes.
If I keep changing up the stimulus/exercise, my body doesn't get the same consistent signal to grow.
Typically we suggest training movement patterns for at least 4 weeks before changing them up. The accessory work (isolation work) can be changed more frequently but that is not as optimal as keeping them the same for 4 weeks. If you do change them, the changes should be small. Examples: Changing from lunges to step-ups would be fine because the movement pattern is very similar.
Research shows us that when we start a new exercise routine, that we experience the most muscle damage and soreness. We all know that feeling of when you start a new leg routine and you have a hard time sitting on the toilet the following day.
Previously, muscular damage was thought to be a driver of muscle hypertrophy. But a study in 2016, showed us that muscle hypertrophy was only accounted for AFTER muscle damage was attenuated. The study also showed that after the initial bout of exercise, strength declined ~22% for 48 hours. (Damas et al. (2016))
If I continue to change exercises and "shock" my body. I have the potential of being in a strength deficit due to the muscular damage created from that session. I am going to be excessively sore and that will limit the amount of weight that I can lift the next session.
If our goal is to improve strength, we don't need to be sore all the time.. That is not a good indicator of strength or muscle hypertrophy.
A BETTER indicator of muscle strength and hypertrophy is the weight on the barbell.
Note: Just because "muscle confusion" does not meet the overload principles, does not mean you won't get strong or build more muscle. BUT.. the progress will be at a slower rate.
Importance of Having Fun
Again, I will note that muscle confusion can be good for "having fun" in the gym. Most CrossFit/Orange Theory/Functional Fitness gyms use this concept. The goal is to provide a good experience and get people excited about being active, not making them the BEST at the exercises that they are doing in the gym.
Our Effective Fitness plan keeps the strength portions the same for 12 weeks but it changes the accessory work and metcons to keep it FUN and build CONSISTENCY.
But if you are looking for OPTIMAL progress, your training may not have as much variety. You will have the same exercises for 4-6 weeks before switching them up! This may be "boring" for some people, and those people will benefit from a program that has more variety so they are excited to get to the gym and put the work in.
You must enjoy the process! Whether that means you have to throw in some "muscle confustion" workouts to get there, that is fine. But that should NOT be the basis of your program. You need a handful of exercises that you are working to progress for 4-12 weeks to make long term improvement.
Thanks for reading!
- Dr. Matthew Shiver